Understanding #TakeaKnee

Why are athletes kneeling during the national anthem? Can one be patriotic and critical of one's country?

This Teaching Idea was originally published in September 2018.

As the 2018 National Football League season begins, it will be the third season in a row in which player protests during the national anthem have sparked controversy off the field.

In 2016, San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick began to kneel on the sideline during the singing of the anthem to protest the repeated episodes of killing and abuse of black Americans by police that have made national headlines in the past several years. Other players have since joined the protest by “taking a knee” during the anthem, leading to an ongoing national debate over the meaning of patriotism. At the heart of the debate are the following questions:

What does it mean to be  patriotic? Can one love and support one's country while simultaneously expressing anger toward and protesting its injustices?

Many students, especially if they follow sports, are aware of the controversy over the #takeaknee protests, but they may not have had the opportunity to consider the issue outside of the contentiousness of our contemporary political discourse. It is important to clarify with students the athletes’ stated purpose in taking a knee during the anthem. Some critics have accused the athletes of protesting the anthem itself, or the American flag, even though the athletes have explained that their protests are statements of conscience directed specifically toward racial injustice.

The following resources and activities can help you guide your class through an examination of patriotism and the #takeaknee debate. There is more here than can be accomplished in a single class period; you might adapt and adjust these ideas to fit the available time or spread them out over the course of the season, inviting your students to follow the story as it continues to unfold in the months to come.

Reflect on the Meaning of Patriotism

Begin a class discussion with the following prompt using the Think, Pair, Share strategy:

What is patriotism? What are some ways that people can express their patriotic feelings and beliefs?

As the pairs report their ideas out to the class, note the characteristics and expressions of patriotism they mention on the board or a piece of chart paper.

Cover the Basics

Share the text set Taking a Knee: Sports & Protest from Newsela (a free account is required). This page includes 11 news and opinion articles collected over the past two years, each available in multiple Lexile levels for readers of different abilities. Students can use these articles to uncover some basic information about the debate.

Three articles from the text set may be particularly useful in helping your students learn about the history of the debate:

  1. PRO/CON: O'er the Ramparts We Watched as Athletes Were Kneeling
  2. 49ers Fans Burn Jerseys Over Player's Refusal to Stand during Anthem
  3. NFL Owners Say Players Must Stand for the National Anthem on the Field

As students read, have them record information in response to the following questions:

  • Why are athletes kneeling during the anthem?
  • How do critics of the protests explain their opposition?

After recording basic information, students can then reflect on their own perspectives on the #takeaknee debate. The Learn to Listen, Listen to Learn strategy provides a useful structure to model civil discourse while discussing controversial issues.

Analyze an Image Together As a Class

Share the cover image from the January 15, 2018, edition of The New Yorker. Entitled “In Creative Battle,” the image was created by artist Mark Ulriksen. Lead students through the See, Think, Wonder routine to analyze the image. As part of the discussion, share the title of the image with students and ask them why they think the artist chose it. Then open up the discussion to include the following question:

Why do you think the artist linked Colin Kaepernick and Michael Bennett with Martin Luther King, Jr.? How do you think he would define patriotism? Why?

Finally, ask students to reflect on how the image connects to, extends, or challenges their perspective on #takeaknee.

    Help Students Understand the Long History of Athletes and Protest

    For instance, African-American Olympic runners Tommie Smith and John Carlos were stripped of the medals they won in the 1968 Olympics after raising their fists in a Black Power salute during the awards ceremony. The year before, the charismatic heavyweight boxing champion Cassius Marcellus Clay, Jr., better known as Muhammad Ali, protested the Vietnam War, refused the draft, and was stripped of his heavyweight boxing title. Facing History's Eyes on the Prize: America's Civil Rights Movement Study Guide (pages 164–170) includes additional resources and activities to help students learn more about Ali’s activism and protest. Ask students to consider:

    What is "conscience"?  What role might it have played in Ali's activism?  What role might it play in athletes' choice to kneel today?

    Introduce the Concept of Critical Patriotism

    Critical patriotism is the idea that members of society have not only the right but the moral obligation to hold society to high values and to speak their conscience when they feel it is not living up to them. Scholars Ben Railton and Chad Williams both take a stand on the importance of people protesting on behalf of their country.

    Railton writes that critical patriotism is a form of patriotism:

    . . .in which the only time an American can love his or her country is when he or she is honest about and (as needed) critical of it. This narrative recognizes our nation’s loftiest ideas and ideals, those truly exceptional American qualities, and believes that we have the potential to achieve them. But it likewise acknowledges how often we have fallen short of them, how much of our history is dark and divided and destructive, and in fact believes that the highest expressions of our love for our country include remembering, retelling, and engaging with those darker histories, in hopes of moving toward a more truly ideal future.1

    Writing about the #takeaknee protests, Williams criticizes the NFL for imposing what he believes is a narrow definition of patriotism. Williams uses the following century-old quotation from W.E.B. Du Bois to convey the dilemma faced by many Americans:

    How far can love for my oppressed race accord with love for the oppressing country? And when these loyalties diverge, where shall my soul find refuge?2

    Ask students to reflect on how Williams's and Railton’s definition fits with their own definitions of patriotism. After learning more about the #takeaknee controversy and other examples of protest by athletes, how has their thinking about patriotism changed?




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